May 26, 2011

The History of Hysteria, In Photographs

NPR's Jessica Loudis takes a look at Asti Hustvedt's Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth Century Paris, a new book examining the women confined to the notorious Salpetriere Hospital in Paris, the treatment of their condition, which was dubbed "hysteria," and the effects and stories about that threatment then and now. Says Ms. Loudis in part,

Nowhere was hysteria's uneasy relationship to science more apparent than in photographs. Andre Breton once called hysteria the "greatest poetic discovery of the late 19th century," a notion that lingers below the surface of clinical observation. Like Muybridge's images of horses in motion, Charcot used photography as a mode of forensics and a means to parse illness. For the neurologist, a lifelong doodler, "art became a method to immobilize the tumultuous fits of his patients and order the savage thrashing into a sequence of static images." It's no coincidence that "Augustine," Charcot's most documented hysteric, arrived at the hospital in 1875, the same year that its first darkroom was installed. But more than a century later, these photos — many of which have the macabre look of a still from a Bela Lugosi film — are in no way native to the realm of medicine. Instead, Hustvedt uses them to highlight the historically foggy divide between science and art.
More here. The book is published by Norton.

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